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Waterproof vs water-repellent vs water-resistant

A small distinction that makes a big difference

© Salomon

If even rainy weather can't keep you away from your favourite sport, you need good waterproof protection. Equipment and clothing manufacturers often use the terms waterproof, water-resistant and water-repellent in their advertising – but what's the difference? Keep reading to learn what you should look out for when buying rain gear to ensure the best outdoor experience with the right equipment, even in dismal weather.

What is the difference between water-repellent, waterproof and water-resistant?

Water-resistant, water-repellent and waterproof all mean staying dry, right? Unfortunately, it's not that simple when it comes to buying outdoor gear. If you've ever been annoyed by your supposedly water-resistant clothing that reliably got you soaked to the skin in the rain, then you already know from practical experience why this small but subtle difference is so important.

There are several differences between water-resistant, water-repellent and waterproof in terms of resistance to wetness.

How high the protection against wetness or moisture really is depends on a number of factors:
  • What material is the gear made of?
  • How tightly is the fabric woven?
  • Has the material received additional impregnation?
  • What stresses does the fabric have to withstand?
  • Are the seams and zips sealed?

This determines how long you will stay dry in a light drizzle, brief shower or persistent heavy rain, because although a few drops are tolerable when walking the dog, soaked clothing can be devastating on a multi-day trek. So when choosing your gear, make sure it's suitable for your conditions – whether it's water-resistant, water-repellent or waterproof.

© Salomon

When is clothing water-resistant?

If your gear is water-resistant, it inherently offers a certain level of protection against moisture. The fabric is so tightly woven that water does not penetrate it immediately, which means that impregnation or a protective coating is not necessary. Water-resistant fabrics are ideal for everyday life, a foggy morning or light rain showers, but they do not provide durable protection if the rain gets heavier or lasts for a long period of time.

What does “water-repellent” mean?

Water-repellent fabric has a surface that causes rainwater to bead up like a lotus leaf. This means that moisture cannot penetrate the fabric initially.

If a garment is described as being durably water-repellent, it has been impregnated using a chemical or thermal treatment. A common method for this is a Durable Water Repellent finish, also called DWR.

If a garment is designated as being water-repellent, it provides better protection than a water-resistant version. Unfortunately, this still doesn't mean that you and your skin will stay permanently dry. If the rain lasts for a long time or gets heavier, even water-repellent materials can soak through over time. The same applies if pressure is applied to your clothing.

What does “waterproof” mean?

Do you keep going even in prolonged, heavy rain, or are passionate about winter sports? If so, water-resistant or water-repellent clothing is not enough. Instead, waterproof clothing is a must. With this level of protection, there is hardly any risk of you getting wet – provided you actually have the waterproof jacket on at the relevant moment and not just in your rucksack or clothes cupboard.

According to German standards, waterproof material has a pressure resistance equivalent to at least a 13,000 millimetre water column. It keeps you dry even during longer, heavier rain and is ideal if you want to stay permanently dry on longer treks or hikes. This will not only prevent you from catching a cold, but also from unpleasant chafing that can easily occur under soaked clothing.

Clothing is durably waterproof if it also has rainproof seams and zips. This is achieved by sealing, welding or taping.
© Salomon

Whether your gear needs to be waterproof or merely water-repellent or water-resistant depends above all on the duration and intensity of the rain you are exposed to during your activities. There exist large regional and seasonal differences, which you should take into account when choosing your clothing.

According to the European standard EN 343:003, the terms water-resistant, water-repellent and waterproof are also assigned categories: In this case, water-resistant corresponds to category 1 with the lowest requirement, water-repellent to category 2 with a medium requirement and waterproof to category 3 with the highest requirement.

Here is a summary of all the terms at a glance:
RequirementDesignationPerfect for:
Up to a 8000 mm water columnWater-resistant
(Category 1)
  • Spontaneous, brief & light rain showers, drizzle or fog
  • Everyday life and urban outdoor
8000 mm water column or moreWater-repellent
(Category 2)
  • Changeable weather and light to moderate rain
  • Backup rain gear for short and half-day hikes
13,000 mm water column or moreWaterproof
(Category 3)
  • Constant heavy rain
  • Endurance cycling, hiking or trekking & winter sports

Theoretically, so far so good – but how dry you really stay in practice depends on a second factor: the pressure your clothing is subjected to during use. The greater the pressure on the fabric, the higher the water column should be.

How the water column affects water resistance

Have you ever bought a waterproof pair of trousers or jacket, yet still arrived at your destination wet at the end of the day? If so, the water column may not have been suitable for your activity. Because, as in most cases, waterproof does not always mean waterproof.

The hydrostatic water column indicates the pressure that wetted clothing can withstand before water can penetrate it. The higher the water column, the lower the water permeability under high pressure – and the longer the clothing keeps you dry.

Pressure can quickly be created by movement, strong wind or luggage, for example when you carry heavy luggage on your shoulders or sit on a wet stone. But if you choose your waterproof gear according to your usual activities, you shouldn't have any problems.

© Salomon

These guide values are a good starting point for your choice of clothing:

  • 1,000 mmH2O: Umbrellas, canvas & tarpaulins without load
  • 1,300 mmH2O: Rucksacks
  • 5,000 mmH2O: Tents and tent groundsheets
  • 10,000 mmH2O: Rain & ski jackets without rucksack load
  • 15,000 mmH2O: Rain & ski trousers
  • 20,000 mmH2O: Jackets with a heavy rucksack load

With a high water column, you are particularly flexible when it comes to your activities and how much luggage you can take with you – many clothing and equipment manufacturers are also taking this into account, as the water resistance of materials is constantly increasing thanks to technological developments. Many garments now come with a high water column by default.

Now you can assess exactly which gear is right for you. The better the clothing keeps out moisture from the outside, it becomes all the more important how dry it keeps you on the inside.

© Salomon

Water-resistant, water-repellent or waterproof - breathability is crucial

The best rainwear is useless if you're dripping with sweat instead of rainwater, because it really doesn't matter what gets you soaked. The more resistant the clothing is to rain, the more important it is to have good breathability. When clothing is breathable, water vapour can escape to the outside and you stay comfortably dry even during strenuous activities.

Breathability is measured either as an MVTR value (in g/m²/24h) or as a RET value (<4 to 8 is considered extremely breathable).

If your clothing is water-resistant, it usually still has natural breathability – especially if it contains natural materials such as cotton. On the other hand, if clothing is impregnated to make it water-repellent or even waterproof, this also considerably reduces the natural vapour permeability. In this case, you should pay special attention to technologies with good values, such as the Gore-Tex Active or Dermizax NX ranges.

Outdoor clothing with Gore-Tex Active or Dermizax-NX technology

© Salomon

How do I care for waterproof clothing?

To ensure that waterproof stays waterproof and water-repellent stays water-repellent, proper care is crucial. If clothing is water-resistant, it can often even be washed with normal garments in the washing machine. This makes the water-resistant version particularly practical in everyday life or on shorter routes, because it offers moderate protection while requiring the least amount of care.

Garments with impregnation, on the other hand, only remain waterproof or water-repellent if you care for them properly: Aggressive detergents or washing additives such as fabric softeners are clearly the wrong way to go. Instead, a gentle liquid detergent or even special outdoor detergent keep your gear intact. Turn the laundry inside out, wash at low temperatures and, ideally, do not use the spin cycle – or the tumble dryer.

If there are stains on the garment, it is best to treat them before washing. Also close all zips to protect the fabric from damage.

Always refer to the care label for more detailed washing instructions. You can also refresh the impregnation yourself at regular intervals. This way, your rain protection will remain just as water-resistant, water-repellent or waterproof as on the first day, even after prolonged use.

The most important things at a glance – your checklist

  • Water-resistant, water-repellent and waterproof garments differ in terms of their resistance to moisture
  • Water-resistant: Water column up to 8,000 mm; good for a drizzle, foggy walks and everyday life.
  • Water-repellent: Water column of 8,000 mm or more; durably repellent in heavier showers and ideal for outdoor adventures
  • Waterproof: Garments with a water column of 13,000 mm or more are described as being waterproof; perfect for prolonged intense rain and long trips
  • In terms of rain resistance, the following applies: water-resistant < water-repellent < waterproof

Summary: The right gear prolongs your outdoor fun

With the right rain gear, nothing will stop you in the future. Depending on which outdoor adventure your heart beats for, you will need the corresponding level of protection against the rain. The higher the water column of your garment, the better and longer you will be protected, even when subjected to heavy use, and the more important breathability becomes.

For the best possible rain protection, choose a waterproof garment with a high water column and impermeable seams and/or zips. However, these highly developed technologies come at a price. If, on the other hand, you need an easy-to-care-for and universal everyday companion for work or short walks, you are also well advised to choose a water-resistant or water-repellent outfit.